Joe Media's Serena Kutchinsky: Turning the brand around - Press Gazette

‘We're for the men, not the lads’: Joe Media's editorial director Serena Kutchinsky on turning the brand around

Joe Media Serena Kutchinsky

As a former BBC journalist and, well, a woman, Serena Kutchinsky isn’t the obvious choice to head up men’s digital lifestyle brand Joe Media.

The 41-year-old is first to bring up the fact that she is now editorial director of a men’s title and doesn’t identify as the target market, the question having come up before. So what’s her answer?

“My answer to that is that it honest to God did not cross my mind,”  she says, adding that in itself is a “positive testament to where society is now” given that not so long ago Nuts and Zoo – “where boobs were a regular sight” – were mainstream men’s titles.

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“I’ve actually tended to tell male stories on issues like sex and relationships and mental health, because I feel like men’s stories are less heard,” says Kutchinsky. “If you give men a platform, if you give them the ability to open up, you find that they do really want to talk.”

Although she spent three months on the features desk at Stylist magazine as a freelance, Kutchinsky admits: “I’ve never really been a women’s magazine person… I just find women’s stuff a bit – I don’t want to use the word ‘fluffy’ because Stylist is not fluffy, but a bit ‘girly’ for me…

“I like to get into the nitty-gritty and the difficult side of things and I feel like if you’re telling men’s stories you’ve kind of got a bit more freedom to go there.”

‘It may seem on paper: ‘BBC news and Joe, that’s a bit strange…’

Kutchinsky comes from a current affairs background, with stints – “always in a digital change role” – at the Sunday Times, Prospect, Newsweek and The News Statesman. She joined BBC Three in 2017, working on the channel’s website after it went digital-only under BBC cutbacks.

“My brilliant boss Nisha Diu hired me and we created this kind of viral news and features desk within BBC Three,” she says. Kutchinsky recalls awkward meetings with “middle-aged news execs” at the BBC where she would tell them that stories about “the guy that couldn’t stop masturbating, erectile dysfunction…” would be appearing on the BBC News homepage.

She moved over to Newsbeat, the BBC’s regular radio news bulletins, as assistant editor and held this role until she left for maternity leave and the pandemic struck. It was Joe Media who approached Kutchinsky, who says: “It felt like the time for a change.”

I put it to her that her move from the BBC, the nation’s most-read and most-trusted newsbrand, to Joe Media, a lifestyle website bought out of administration last year, seems an unlikely one.

“It may seem on paper: ‘BBC news and Joe, that’s a bit strange’,” she admits, but says her role at the BBC was about “trying to drive change” and reaching the youth audience the public broadcaster is focusing its efforts on attracting to ensure the next generation of licence-fee payers.

“Now it’s sort of flipped and my mission is to bring a bit of the BBC’s credibility, or whatever – hard-hitting investigative, original journalism… and scale it up with a digital publisher that does have the 18 to 34 audience, which is the audience that everyone wants and no-one can actually work out how to get or speak to authentically. It’s a challenge in reverse.”

What is Joe Media?

Joe Media Serena Kutchinsky

Joe Media is a “social-first digital publisher”, which writes from a “liberal left-leaning” position, says Kutchinsky. It was founded in Ireland in 2010 and expanded into the UK in 2015. London-based Joe Media made a loss of £1.7m in 2018. It also incurred losses in 2019.

The company went into administration last summer but was bought by venture capital firm Greencastle Capital, which runs Greencastle Media Group. The group owns Joe in Ireland and Joe Media in the UK, which are now separate entities, as well as the London Economic.

Former Unilad executives John Quinlan and Liam Harrington signed a deal to manage the Joe Media business for a monthly fee of £50,000 through their new media and tech start-up Iconic Labs.

[Read more: Former Unilad executives to run Joe Media for £50k a month after VC firm buys it out of administration]

It was announced in February that Quinlan, Harrington and Samuel Regan-Asante, also of Iconic Labs, had joined GMG as part of its senior leadership team. Kutchinsky reports to Regan-Asante.

Joe Media has an office in Manchester, where its “trending team” are based, covering news, and will also be home to its video creatives and a touted political correspondent covering the north.

In London, under Kutchinsky’s direction, will be the politics, sport and lifestyle teams, with the focus on making original journalism and “building out a lifestyle offering”. By lifestyle Kutchinsky doesn’t mean the five best whiskey flasks, but rather ”drugs, crime, the dark side of digital culture…”.

Joe Media currently has an editorial team of about 40 and is still hiring.

Publication Website Total visits – April 2021 (Similarweb)
Buzzfeed (US) 117.03m
Independent 82.61m
Huffpost (US) 74.16m
Vice (US) 30.96m
Lad Bible 8.4m
Huffpost UK 4.87m
Joe 1.25m

‘Being purely reliant on Facebook… is not sustainable’

The brand is probably best known outside of its core readership for its viral videos on social media, particularly on Facebook where it has just under 4.5m followers. In the past Joe’s social-first approach has neglected its own website, something Kutchinsky is keen to change – “If you look at the [Jacob] Rees-Mogg [mash-up- video] there’s no Joe link for that.”

Kutchinsky says the definition of social-first journalism is already evolving and changing within the industry.

“The homepage is still a destination and we focus on it, but as we know – unless you’re the BBC etc. – very few websites are what you’d call destination websites, that people will type into the [address] bar, so it’s all about surfacing content through different platforms,” she says.

“Being purely reliant on Facebook as your traffic tap is not sustainable and I think that’s well known across the industry and I’m very aware of that. There is a lot of potential for growth elsewhere, through Apple News, Google News Showcase, Facebook News.

“It’s a really interesting time for the industry as the relationship between content creators and social platforms is moving forward and appears to be becoming a bit more mutual maybe than it has been in the past.”

Although there are far fewer men’s titles still in print compared to women’s titles, Kutchinsky points out that online “women’s titles have been folding left, right and centre” with The Debrief and The Pool both closing in the last few years. “Digitally, you do have a strong male audience,” she says.

[Read more: Net loss of seven UK print magazine titles over last five years, analysis shows]

‘You could say we’re for the men, not the lads’

Obviously, you can’t talk about online men’s lifestyle journalism without mentioning the lads: LadBible and Unilad (now under the same owner), whom Kutchinsky describes as “behemoths of their type” that provide “entertainment news” for a younger, digital-native audience.

But she is keen to draw a distinction between Joe’s editorial offering and the lad sites. “Our audience is 18 to 34, but someone that’s grown up… there’s a reason why ‘lad’ is not in Joe’s title anywhere. I mean you could say we’re for the men, not the lads,” she says. A commitment to original journalism will also set them apart, Kutchinsky adds.

Nonetheless, a glance at Joe’s news coverage shows that words like “legend”, in the blokey banter sense, still slip in. Kutchinsky says the tone is not “laddish”, but rather “irreverent, a bit jokey, a little bit snarky when appropriate”. She points out some of Joe’s writers are female.

“I think colloquial is good. It’s an art form to write well, but still sound like you’re talking to your mates in the pub – well, on Zoom. To me, that is the definition of good copy,” she says.

‘We’re not trying to make money’ from news

Joe also draws comparisons with other digital-only media brands such as Buzzfeed, Huffpo and the Independent (the latter of which Kutchinsky praises for its “successful model for digital journalism” that hasn’t neglected “serious journalism”), but it is probably closest to Vice, at least in terms of Kutchinsky’s editorial ambitions.

[Read more: Huffpost cuts were ‘brutal’, says insider, as rivals provide lesson in making digital pay]

The irreverent youth lifestyle brand is known for its documentary-style short videos on cultural issues and has partnered with HBO in the US.

Kutchinsky says she wants Joe to collaborate with the likes of the BBC and Channel 4 “to take our work to these bigger platforms and to help them gain traction with the 18 to 34 audience I know they want/need to reach”. “We are already producing broadcast-quality documentaries, and it is my ambition to get those to as wide an audience as possible,” she says.

But there are more ambitions besides that. Kutchinsky wants to “establish Joe as the grown-up essential platform for men…” and win awards for its original journalism, focusing on more long-form content that has a “slightly more sophisticated social issue twist to it”.

She also wants to launch newsletters, podcasts and new shows, as well as reviving brands like Unfiltered, LBC host James O’Brien’s interview series which she says “still has great traction with the audience”.

But given Buzzfeed, Huffpo and Vice have all been forced to make sizeable cutbacks to their operations, with Buzzfeed and Huffpo both shutting down their UK news teams, the obvious question remains: how is Joe going to make it all pay?

“Without being too blunt about it, our expectation is not that we’re going to make money from our news and politics coverage,” says Kutchinsky. “We are going into that with our eyes open. I think that’s the distinction really: we’re not we’re not trying to make money from that.

“That is our brand play, that is our credibility, that is our original journalism that we’re proud of and we want to shout about and we want to be known for, but we are going into this saying: ‘That is not where we’re going to make our money.’”

Joe Media will still rely on branded content for “big investment”, but new hires have brought in expertise in programmatic advertising, creating a previously untapped revenue stream for the online publisher which she says will protect Joe from the “seasonality” of branded content.

The digital brand has just hired Paul Coldham as its head of creative on the commercial side.

“Once you increase your reach and your scale, then your ability to bring in partnerships and ad revenue go up,” says Kutchinsky, who also floats the possibility of a premium content model (she worked on the Sunday Times paywall) and exploring e-commerce further down the line.

“What you see from BuzzFeed etc. is obviously they’ve cut back on the news offering, but where they have bumped it up is the lifestyle side because that’s actually where more partnership and ad revenue potential lies.

“We are doing that as well, so these two or three revenue streams which weren’t being utilised previously, the new administration are bringing in and are really focused on tapping.

“If you look at BuzzFeed, they’re growing out their lifestyle vertical – they’re even selling merchandise including sex toys. I’m not saying that we’re going to go into that, but a ‘Joe Store’ or merchandise could be something we look at in the future.”

Sport is already a “key commercial entity” for Joe and Kutchinsksy says “the growth there is huge”. Live events are another possible source of income for the brand “once the world is back to normal”, she adds, with turning Joe’s online pub quiz into a live event an “easy win”.

There’s nothing girly about all that.

Picture: Joe Media